|Animated TV special from 1970|
We all remember watching the animated TV specials Rudolph, Frosty, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. But do you recall Christmas Is, also made during the golden age of Christmas TV animation? Christmas Is is a half-hour, traditional cel animated TV special produced by Lutheran Television. It aired for many decades in syndication. Not only do I remember seeing it when I was young in the 1970s, but I know it was STILL airing each holiday season through the early 2000s after I had begun the research for the encyclopedia Tis the Season TV.
|Best friends Benji and and his pet dog Waldo.|
Christmas Is centers around the characters Benji and Waldo, a little boy and his long haired sheepdog. This is the first of four animated specials to feature Benji and Waldo. The two characters can also be seen in The City That Forgot About Christmas (1974), Easter Is (1974), and Freedom Is (1976, Fourth of July TV special).
|More about these 7" records in the essay Christmas Records, Part 2. Click HERE.|
|My Benji and Waldo plastic coin bank.|
Benji and Waldo were also featured in children's merchandise. I've found three different plastic 7" records that I believe were offered as free giveaways. I also have a Benji and Waldo 5" plastic coin bank. (If you know of any other Benji and Waldo items--please let me know!)
|At play rehearsal. (Benji is the boy touching the floor).|
|Even though Benji has played Shepherd #2 before, he claims he still doesn't understand what's going on.|
Christmas Is casts a long shadow despite its simple story. Benji is playing Shepherd #2 in a children's pageant about The Nativity. After a chaotic rehearsal--another child misbehaves several times--everyone is instructed by the director to return in the evening for the production. Carrying his costume, Benji walks home with the other children. He remarks to the others his frustration with playing the minor role of Shepherd #2 for the second year in a row. Benji expresses doubt that his role is necessary to the production.
|Existential crisis time! Benji wonders about the role of Shepherd #2.|
To better understand his role, Benji takes a second look at a storybook with the entire tale. Next, he finds himself with Waldo in Bethlehem at the time of the first Christmas. The streets are crowded as people come to the city to be counted in the census. A Roman soldier orders everyone off the streets for the night but the local inn is already full.
|Ever find yourself lost inside a book? Benji does.|
|Benji wisely obeys the orders of a Roman soldier.|
Benji enters the building and sees that the innkeeper is struggling to bring food and meet the needs of his guests. Benji volunteers to assist the innkeeper in exchange for a place on the floor to sleep. The innkeeper agrees.
|Aahhh. Now Benji has a better understanding of the context of the story.|
Going from table to table, bringing food, pouring wine, and cleaning up, Benji overhears various conversations of the people in Bethlehem. He hears people talking about the importance and purpose of the census. He hears Roman soldiers discussing the power and authority they hold over the local residents. And, he hears people discussing their need and desire for the Messiah. When Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arrive at the front door, Benji sees the innkeeper direct them towards the animal shelter behind the inn.
|A baby has been born in the stable but the crowds don't yet know the significance of the event.|
In the middle of the night, Benji, Waldo, and the others in the inn are awakened by a bright light coming from the sky. A commotion is happening in the nearby stable, and people begin gathering there. Shepherds arrive at the animal shelter and begin sharing with everyone the importance of the newborn baby. The shepherds reveal that an angel visited them in the fields and told them that this baby is the Messiah of prophesy.
|Benji addresses the real-life Shepherd #2.|
Benji speaks with one of the shepherds and comes to understand that no one gathered at the stable would know who this baby was if it weren't for the shepherds. Feeling like he has a better understanding of his role in the dramatic story, Benji is eager for the evening's Christmas pageant.
|The children's play is a success!|
|Benji's "research" allows him to bring a sense of authenticity to the role of Shepherd #2.|
The animated TV special includes two original songs in its soundtrack: "Christmas Is" and "Christmas All Over the World." The original music is composed by Jimmie Haskell, with lyrics by Guy Hemric.
The voice cast for this production is stellar. Actors Hans Conried, Don Messick, Jerry Hausner, Vic Perrin, and June Foray are certainly familiar voices in the history of animation. This production clearly had a significant budget which they used wisely in casting. The investment clearly contributes to the longevity of Christmas Is.
The short title makes this production a bit confusing to locate in the age of on-line search engines. Make the effort anyway. Christmas Is is available for viewing on DVD, and elsewhere. Do you remember watching the TV special? Have you seen it more recently? Is this one of your favorites? Do you have any additional Benji and Waldo merchandise not mentioned above? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her most recent book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com
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